To pat myself on the back for continuing to hammer away on this keyboard in an effort to turn you all on to films you might have otherwise overlooked, or steer you away from the ones that stink, I aimed my microscopic spotlight at a trio of artists who do things the right way. Guys who lead with their craft and let the results of their efforts speak for themselves.
Certain films linger in your memory like a collection of postcard images connecting you to a time and place, a story, a mosaic of actors who you almost feel you know.
The films I absorbed when I first moved to Los Angeles will always be the most memorable, and indeed most influential, viewing experiences of my career.
Low budget films.
Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Nick Gomez’ Laws of Gravity, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Chasing Amy, Robert Rodgriguez’ El Mariachi, Carl Franklin’s One False Move, and Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law from indie God Jim Jarmusch.
I know from personal experience that getting a film made, from script to an audience, is like singlehandedly pushing an ice chest filled with bowling balls and anvils up the side of a mountain.
It almost always requires teaming up with at least one other like-minded, passionate, fearless warrior to reach the summit.
I first noticed Eddie Jemison’s work in a gem of a movie called Waitress (2007), written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly. Jemison played Ogie, a smitten, over-the-moon small town diner patron who wears his heart on his sleeve for one of the local waitresses (played by Shelly). It’s the kind of performance I have always responded to. Big, bold, emotionally charged.
John Mese is one of those rock solid L.A. actors who has been “on the circuit” for years, appearing in all of the shows the rest of the nation loves; always delivering credible, honest performances, seemingly on the verge of grabbing the reins at any time. A phone call away from being cast as the lead of the new CSI: Bakersfield.
Jemison and Mese met at LSU and later became close pals as graduates in the MFA program. Initially, Jemison was the “gung-ho” enthusiast ready to tackle a life in the arts and John was the cynical “guy in the hoodie” in the back row. But after they graduated, it was Eddie who walked away and moved to Chicago, while Mese ventured West to Los Angeles to give the profession a go.
It was in L.A. where they reunited, 12 years later, at an acting/writing class.
Eventually, after years of collaborating, Jemison’s script, King of Herrings, became their focus.
King of Herrings, a bittersweet small town slice-of-life-follow-your-broken-dreams love story, has been widely praised by critics. It’s made the festival rounds and come out victorious with a handful of nominations and awards, most notably it won the coveted Audience Award at the New Orleans Film Festival.
The three of us sat down at La Pain Quotidien in Sherman Oaks last month to discuss their friendship, their collaboration, and most of all…their love of film!
Lars: Gentlemen! What a treat. Thanks for making the time.
John: You kidding? Think we would miss a chance to sit down with the one and only Lars Beckerman?
Lars: Good point.
Eddie: You two should get a room. There’s a Quality Inn right down the street.
And it went on like that for twenty minutes before we got around to talking about their film, King of Herrings.
Lars: How did this project happen?
John: We’re in a class together every Wednesday night. And Eddie brought a scene that he wrote in – everybody loved it. I loved it immediately. We all said “write another scene.” So he kept bringing in new stuff. And it went on like that for a while. Eddie writes all kinds of stuff, but that was the first full-length I’d read. It actually began as a play – they were gonna put it on in Louisiana. I was not even really a part of it. I couldn’t see going to Baton Rouge rehearsing a play for a month. So I was kind of taking myself out of the ring…
John: Then, as is often the case, a lot of things happened, and Eddie basically just said “we’ve got everybody interested…let’s do the film version!” We just decided to do it. They offered me the part of Augie, so I told them I could commit to coming in to town for a week…but I couldn’t justify going there for an extended time…
Eddie: But then I – –
John: Then, Eddie offered me a job. I became the first A.D. (assistant director). I said “Great!” Gave me a reason to be there – not sittin’ around on my hands all the time.
Eddie: What he’s not telling you is…he took over!
John: I took over the bullshit. That’s what I took over. The stuff that had to be done.
Eddie: That’s true. He stayed on my mom’s couch. John did anything and everything necessary. I mean everything. And I hate saying this…with you here…but you did EVERYTHING.
John: I got to be the guy I always wish I had when I was making a film. I watched King of Herrings get shot every day, frame by frame. Such a gift to be there and experience the film that way.
Lars: And directing responsibilities were shared between you (Eddie) and your cinematographer, Sean Richardson. How was that relationship on set?
Eddie: Sean was probably…more mature than we were. He was the solid one of the group. All of the older actors in our film were like a bunch of emotional old ladies, and Sean was the calming influence.
John: And you have to realize, Sean was like 25 when we started filming. So, he was the youngest of all of us.
Eddie: He has a real gift. He’s very intuitive. Still, in this movie I feel like the actors pretty much directed themselves. It was pretty much by committee. There wasn’t a lot of talk once we got started. People just kind of jumped in and did what they wanted with their characters.
John: There was a little bit of scrapping early on, but we just kind of said “fuck it, they’re great, let it go.” I feel like a good director can pull a good performance out of almost anyone.
Eddie: John stepped in and directed me a lot when Sean was operating and I had long scenes. A lot of times I was doing so much, that when it came down to the acting I was over the top and John would say “one more take, trust me, don’t do anything,” and that would be the take that we liked the most.
Lars: What films were you drawing from? Influences?
Eddie: Oh, man. The Last Picture Show…Carnal Knowledge. Some David Lynch.
Lars: I saw definite similarities to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.
Eddie: That film changed my life! I saw it at The Varsity when it first came out. So good!
Lars: A line in your film that really jumped off the screen for me was Gat (David Jensen) saying to Ditch (Jemison) “In another life I could have had something meaningful.” That’s a powerful theme. Love your script. What were the central themes that you wanted to convey with this picture?
Eddie: Wow, thanks, Lars. I guess….I wanted every character to lie. I mean, no one tells the truth. It’s all about ego. I wanted them all to be crazed and passionate over the tiniest stakes. High stakes, little reward. Real life is about…nine dollars. You know. I wanted each character to have a story. And everyone’s miscast. I like that.
John: It was a group of actors who all looked at this as their moment to shine. I mean, come on, we’ve all been doing this a long time. We’ve all seen each other do amazing shit.
Lars: All of the performances in King of Herrings are superb. Very thoughtful work from Laura Lamson (Jemison’s real life wife) as Mary. She really struck a wonderfully wounded, lonely chord.
Eddie: Yeah, isn’t she great? She’s so good in this movie. But…you know…everyone really showed up.
Lars: And how did post production go?
John: We worked well as a team. It’s never easy. We gave ourselves a nice chunk of time to edit it, which was really valuable. You wanna be able to go like boom, boom, boom and it’s done. But…we spent about six months building it in the editing room, and then added a few extra scenes. That’s a luxury. Only time we got real progress was when Eddie would jump on a plane and go to Baton Rouge and jump in the editing room with Sean. And then we could sit back and let it breathe, which is so nice. And so unlike tv.
Eddie: We were like three monkeys who didn’t quite know how to build something…so…if you don’t know how to do something you just hope the other guy does. Each one would try to do something and the other would jump in and help out. Kind of like “Get that lawnmower working!”
John: (enjoying the metaphor) It helps when you have all your pals.
Eddie: I think the editing kind of killed Sean. He knew the film so well, but it’s hard…hard to lose stuff, you know? He was really good at the mechanics of it. But you know, the direction was kind of by committee; well, the editing was too.
John: The whole thing was! Best fuckin’ time of my life.
Eddie: Mine too, pal.
Lars: Now who’s getting a room!
John: Well played, Lars.
Lars: I make it a point to always get the last word; and when possible, the last laugh. Thanks, guys.
Eddie: You bet. This was fun.
Indie filmmaking at its very best. Look for the digital release of King of Herrings by the end of the year.
Lance Irwin (The Wire, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, The Reveal…)
If Lance Irwin had been working as an actor in the Hollywood of the 1940s he most surely would have been one of the heavies going toe-to-toe with Bogart, roughing up the dame, belly full of lead; or dealing from the bottom of the deck opposite Gary Cooper in some lawless Old West saloon, toothpick in mouth, bottle on the bar, pushing up daisies.
Instead, this rugged, versatile thespian, with the moves of Gene Kelly and the nose of a pugilist, bumps around the streets of Los Angeles casting offices, showing up in all the cop procedural shows and prime time tragedies.
I sat down with Lance at the trendy Food Lab on Santa Monica Boulevard, an ideal spot for a couple of health-conscious metro-sexuals to discuss career and craft. Turned out to be a good spot for us, too.
Lars: Hello, Lance.
Lance: Hello, Lars.
Lars: When did it all start? This crazy pursuit to be an actor?
Lance: Actually…in high school. I was an…extreme introvert. But…I was a pretty good football player, had some colleges looking at me. Then I got in a car crash – severe nerve damage – being a standout athlete, the story got a ton of local news coverage, and to be honest, I kind of liked all the attention…I got the bug. Ended up going to local Essex Community college and checking out their theatre course, even ballet.
Lance: Right? Then I transferred to Towson University (Maryland) and ended up on the National tour with the Pepsi-cola dance team. It was cool. Studied ballet, tap, modern. I really excelled at it. Their acting program was in conjunction with the dance studio so it was a natural transition for me.
Lars: Do you feel as though the dancing training has helped your acting?
Lance: Yeah. It gives an artist more sense of confidence. Makes you more connected, more grounded.
Grounded. Only a few minutes spent with Lance Irwin will tell you the man is grounded. His mother now a retired school bus driver and his father still working the land on his 110 acre farm in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, Irwin is a throw back. A man’s man who looks you square in the eye and doesn’t sweat fools.
Lars: When did you realize you wanted to pursue acting beyond your college stage work?
Lance: I did a few shows at school – and then right away one of the professors in the media program was doing a full length feature and cast me as his lead. That’s where the film and tv bug bit me.
Lars: And Baltimore has a pretty active film & tv industry.
Lance: My first agent was actually in Philadelphia, Marianne Claro, who I still talk to to this day. I was going on sometimes three auditions a day, driving back and forth between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Got to read for Twelve Monkeys – didn’t book the role, but they did hire me as a precision driver in the film. So that was cool.
Lars: When did The Wire come along?
Lance: The Wire happened as soon as I graduated my graduate program. I was in New York City and got to go back to Baltimore to shoot The Wire. It was my first show, television show, of any kind. All of the guys were relatively new actors. All pretty generous guys. It just kind of exploded…into a six episode deal. I turned out being in eight. It snowballed.
Lars: Well, The Wire was probably the best cop show ever – and your season, season two, was especially strong. And you were great.
Lance: Thanks, Lars.
Lars: Did Marianne Claro get you that audition?
Lance: No, I actually got that one myself. I had been in Baltimore for quite a while and there’s a casting director there named Pat Moran. I dropped by her office a few times and she would periodically bring me in. She was working with David Simon and they called me in. Funny story…I was walking through the Towson mall and David Simon was doing a book signing for his book, Homicide, which spun off in to the tv show. So, I went over and bought his book and had him sign it. He said “why would you want me to sign this book?” I said “because someday I’m gonna be in one of your shows.” He said “oh, you’re an actor…I’m sorry!” That ended the conversation. Then, four years later I was a recurring character on The Wire.
Lars: I love that story.
Lance: Me too.
Lars: So then, what brought you to L.A.?
Lance: It’s the acting mecca of the world. Eleven, twelve years ago when I came out here, it was my idea to be king of the world. Like every other actor.
He laughs big. Our waiter arrives with our Quinoa salads. And my cucumber lemonade. He recognizes Lance from The Wire and tells him he “really likes his work.”
Lars: You’re an East coast guy – tough transition being out here in LaLaLand?
Lance: No, man, I love it, this is my kind of climate.
Lance: Not really…not so much where I need to run back to it. …I had a close call at The Geffen Playhouse, for All My Sons, and they were talking about me doing an understudy…but it just didn’t work out. It would have been seven days a week, just hanging out backstage waiting for a turn to go….I’m not at a point where I can sacrifice a week guest star on Criminal Minds for an understudy job. Even at The Geffen.
Lars: Now you’ve been offered a leading role in the new web series The Reveal…Sounds like an exciting project.
Lance: Yeah, it’s a pretty exciting endeavor. If you’d asked me this time last year if I would be excited about being on a web series I probably would’ve said “hell no.” But…then I read the script and I knew I’d be stupid not to do this. The other actors are pretty talented actors…to say the least! I’m surrounded by real professionals who know sacrifice, know craft, know art work. The character I get to play, he’s a character…definitely…and I’ve always desired to be a good character actor..and this gives me a chance to sink my teeth in to a nice piece of meat.
Right about now, can’t you just picture this guy stepping out from under a dark bridge and matching wits with Bogey? Or clobbering some low rent clown on a train car rumbling through the Andes?
Lars: What filmmakers inspire you?
Lance: Well, if I could go back in time, Elia Kazan. For sure. But, today, guys like Ed Zwick and Peter Berg. I like the action stuff. One of my guilty pleasures is Battleship.
Lars: Wow. Now that’s a guilty pleasure. You must really like Brooklyn Decker.
He cracks up.
Lance: I like the action thing and those guys do it so well. Look at Zwick’s Blood Diamond or Last Samurai – it’s beautiful artwork, and they always have great stories. I wanna do some action stuff. I’ve done professional stunt work since 1996. Always doubled only myself. Some fight scenes here and there.
Lars: What advice would you have for a young actor who looks up to you and wants to follow in your footsteps? Coming out to the mecca.
Lance: Have your shit together. Know what your sacrifices will be before you get out here. Because if you get out here and you realize it’s too big of a sacrifice you’ll probably quit and go back home. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. There will always be work in Los Angeles – you might have to fight for it a little harder right now, but…if you‘re not prepared to make sacrifices…then don’t bother. After all, love is sacrifice, right?
Lars: Well put.
Lance: It’s true.
Lars: If you hadn’t chosen to become an actor, what else might Lance Irwin have fallen in love with?
Lance: Well, I love carpentry. Making furniture. (Pause) I’m also a damned good cook.